Mike Carroll's Footage Feast + Exclusive Interview
Mike Carroll is a skater's skater, an O.G. EMB head and ambassador for good hip hop who has weathered numerous injuries and continued to make his presence felt both on a board and as an innovator in skate industry. He has been a pioneer at the centre of many of the biggest changes and advances in skateboarding over the last 25 years, with the Girl Skateboards camp now rolling 20 years deep. In the process he has released a slew of sections displaying his signature style, board control and love of 90s hip hop. As such it was no hardship to sit down and compile some of his greatest sections on the back of an exclusive interview conducted with Stephen Cox and found on the next page. Sit back with a brew, gain an insight into a company that has been a major part of modern skateboarding, check the technique and look forward to this next week at the House of Vans:
Words by Jono Coote. Above photo: Leo Sharp.
Mike Carroll Interview by Stephen Cox
Melon Grab. Photo: Ben Colen
In-N-Out Burger was founded in 1948 by Harry Snyder and his wife Esther. By 2013, the fast food chain had expanded to the impressive point of employing 18,000 staff at an impressive 281 locations across The States. Thankfully, Mike Carroll has never been on In-N-Out's staff. Instead, since a long time before a lot of us can even recollect anything at all, he has spent the majority of his time concentrating on what wood and wheels will always stand for. That counts as work doesn't it? 20 years on, we spoke to Mike about the necessity for the formation of Girl, how to get the right guys on the team and fond memories of Goldfish amongst other classics. Enjoy –
Words by Stephen Cox
Congratulations on 20 years.
How does it feel to hit this landmark?
It feels strange. 20 years is a lot of years. When you're just growing up skateboarding, just thinking about being a 20-year-old person, it’s kind of not even imaginable. Having Girl for 20 years, hitting that mark is kind of trippy.
How important is it for the company to have good relationships with skateshops and reach out in the ways that you do?
It's pretty much one of the more important relationships to have I think. Just growing up as a skater, it's one of those places besides a spot that you hung out at. I don't know how kids are doing it now they have the internet but growing up that was where you hung out; you got your information from there, got your skate videos, saw the latest magazines and obviously got your product. The guys that work there are usually older so can try to guide you with their wisdom. It’s pretty important to respect that relationship. We wanted to celebrate all the skateshops that have supported us throughout the 20 years and bringing us so far.
In what ways did you do that?
We sent them all the wooden dolls to do their impression and a lot of them were really cool. Me, Rick [Howard] and some of the sales dudes went Midwest all the way through Florida and just talked and hung out with people, checked things out and saw what was going on. Usually you get so busy doing demos and stuff that you don't really get to hang out in the shops and relax.
Let's rewind back in time; tell us about some of the conversations that were had before about what would become Girl around the time of Virtual Reality. At what point did it strike you that you had to start something for yourself?
I think I was just a little nervous future-wise with skateboarding. There was pressure with being on Plan B at the time. With every video a guy was getting retired. There was a lot of pressure to do well in the videos and it seemed like back then guys that I was looking up to that were just turning pro were being retired two years later. It was really confusing to me. All I wanted to do was skate and I was ready to be finished with that pressure and maybe that company. A lot of the guys that were on the team were frustrated but I think Rick and me were the only ones that acted on it. Rick was the one that believed we could do something on our own instead of riding for a different company. That was scary. I was just like, "if you really think we can do it, then I have money saved, I'll do it, I want to skate". I didn't want to crunch numbers and do whatever it is that had to be done because I didn't have the experience and I still felt like I really wanted to skate.
How was that transition?
It was exciting once we started it. It was a good relief, the feeling of, "I'm not going to be retired." Skateboarding was starting to change a little bit, it wasn't just one company that was dictating and everyone wasn't scared of this one guy who ran the whole industry. It was a good time.
From an industry perspective the formation of Girl is considered to be a very large event. Was there a need for such a shift at that time?
I never really thought about it but I guess if you say that, was that a big change? When we were starting it we just wanted to do something for ourselves. It wasn't this big contrived master plan that was going to be this big difference. It was for our mental state. I guess before we left the Rocco companies were perceived in a way where they had so much power and everyone was so scared of him, like he would put you out of business or something like that. When we left, we left in a pretty crazy way. We didn't leave with any notice because if we did everyone would be scared to work with us. We did it secretively. I guess there was a change because maybe everyone was scared of him. I never really paid that close attention; we were just doing our own thing. I think his mind-set changed. Maybe not him personally, but things started being run differently over there. Maybe people were less nervous and scared, letting him dictate everything. I'm not going to assume. Maybe it was a coincidence.
You’ve mentioned Princess Leia as a starting point for Girl previously. Where did the fixation on using the concept of the female gender as the basis of a brand come from? Were other names considered?
I always chose those characters because I didn’t want it to be so, "this is me. I'm Thor, Hans Solo or Luke Skywalker" you know? Just whatever. I want to be the girl? It doesn't make much sense, you don’t have to think too hard about it. But getting the name together, I don't know how the hell we finally decided on that name. I think it was more of a joke: "yeah, we'll just have the bathroom logo." There were names that were thrown out; I'm not even going to say them because they'll get used against me later on in conversations where people try to make stories. I mean, I didn't say "Onyx" but they tried to say I said it. I was just saying what about a word like "Onyx." It has a weird spelling with different letters. It was brainstorming session you know?
Is it true that Chocolate was also going to be named "Sister" as well?
Yeah, that was going to be the name. I think that was a blessing in disguise. I know someone for a fact trademarked it because they heard we were going to name it that. I'm not going to say who it was because I'm not 100% sure who it was and my memory is fading. When we started Chocolate a lot of people tried to not work with us the same way as we thought would happen when we started Girl. When we started Chocolate people that we were even working with didn't want to work with Chocolate because other guys in the industry were trying to get together. For lack of a better word, cockblock. As if they were scared or something. It was weird.
We had a couple of things happen when we were starting Chocolate but we got through it and people were willing to work with us. One was Fausto Vitello, he was always super helpful throughout the whole process and let us know that he had our backs. He was a big industry guy, for so many years to have his support meant a lot.
Spike Jonze spoke before about people wholly believing in what you were doing at the time. What thoughts do you have on the relationships and friendships you have built in that respect?
I think the relationships occurred naturally: growing up skating with people, seeing them at contests. There's a mutual respect. Every person gravitates towards certain individuals with the same respect for skateboarding. I think that's important. A lot of people try to be competitive and we've never wanted to do that. Growing up in San Francisco I looked up to a lot of guys who saw me as a little kid before I was sponsored, them always being supportive and not being "pro dicks." They were always cool. As time goes by you turn pro and relationships just naturally blossom. The relationships that we have with Deluxe and other companies are awesome. It's not always the exact same ideas but we all have the same respect for skateboarding. That's the best way to say it.
Ollie. Photo: Ben Colen
I think it's really important to have those relationships, support each other, not be competitive and have your head so far up your ass that you think you're the shit.
Just as you left you left Plan B, Brian Anderson recently departed from Girl to start his own board company, under good terms, as I understand it.
When Brian came and told us that he wanted to start his own thing, he came down and me, him, Rick and Megan [Baltimore] all sat and talked for 4 hours or something like that. I'm not sure how long. Obviously I had to drive from my house over there so I knew something was going down. I had 3000 thoughts going through my head and I didn't know which one it was but when he told me it was sad but at the same time I was happy for him because he seems really happy. It's a bummer obviously. On the Girl side, you're not going to get to travel as much with him or anything like that. Think about how awesome of a skater he is. When you say travelling that's just part of a friendship, obviously I'm still going to see him. That was one of things that were going through my head: "If he quits Girl, will he ride for Fourstar?" He's a super creative guy with a vision. He did some graphics for us and he's super talented. For him to have an outlet for all his creativity? I'm super psyched for him. He was super happy about what he wanted to do. We wouldn’t have been able to take on another company. It was good that he had that figured out. Him and Brad [Staba] are really good friends. Everything just all made sense.
Girl is considered to be somewhat of the holy grail of companies to ride for. What factors do you think have built that reputation?
I'd like to break that thought down. It's very flattering but I don't know, I don't like that. It seems weird that people would think that.
It's flattering, it's cool, and it’s awesome. I don't want it to seem so untouchable or something like that.
How do you select who rides for the company? I understand it's more about personality as well as talent.
Obviously it's ability but it has to be about personality because you're going to be sitting in a van with the guys on tour for months. There are certain personalities and the past has shown that sometimes things just don't work out. A lot of it is personality. You've got to be able to work with them on ideas. They've got to be inspired by what we're doing. You've got to go on tour and be able to get along with them, have a laugh with them, and be able to communicate with them if someone is bummed, isn't super happy or is homesick for example. It's just being able to mesh with each other. Usually it works out perfectly. Sometimes the process takes a long time and unfortunately it can take a little bit longer than usual but the result ends up being a more long-term relationship than just, "this guy is rad and we're putting him on. We'll figure out his attitude or personality later." Next thing you know you just can't deal with him or he complains.
What were your first impressions of Sean Malto or Cory Kennedy? When did you first meet them?
The first time I met Sean we went and did a demo in Kansas City years ago. He was super tiny. He came out and killed it. We didn't really hang out with him too much but I met him; he was this little local kid that we were flowing boards to and Sam [Smyth] kept in communication with him. I think he went on his trip first with Mike Mo [Capaldi]. You get them on trips with most of the guys and just see. It's usually a group thing. Then Cory, I don't know what trips he went on but I think he travelled with Eric [Koston] a lot. Then the guys hung out with him a little bit. I think he went on a trip that I wasn't on. A lot of the guys got to know him before I did. The first time I really hung out with Cory was on an Australia trip. He's always been someone who is happy, having a good time with whatever is going on. I think he just loves life. Sean is just a straight, stand-up dude. I've watched him grow up into being so responsible. It's crazy to see.
Sometimes people don't really take to stuff that he goes through so well, they can blow responsibilities off and bullshit around but he knows how to enjoy skating and knows how to be professional too. You get lucky sometimes with guys. We've found some interesting characters before [laughs].
What's your working relationship like with Rick?
He does a lot of the work. He's always at Girl. He deals with a lot of the approval; people go to him to finalize something, to see what his thoughts are. I'm around a little bit less than him but we bounce ideas off each other. We're kind of the same but then at the same time we're two totally different personalities. He's carefree and fun, I'm a little bit more opinionated. I think it's a good balance. I know I have a lot of shitty ways of delivering my thoughts or opinions and he puts me into perspective.
You're never at each other’s throats then?
No. Never. I heard that he was going to call the cops on me because I was too drunk on tour and I was annoying. I'm sure I've annoyed him before but I think we're pretty mellow people. We'll brush it off; it's not that big of a deal to really go at each other. Usually you talk it out. I was really drunk and I hadn't been drunk in a long time. I think he was just trying to be funny [laughs]. I think I was just annoying the shit out of him.
When you began filming for Goldfish, you started enjoying things much more. Do you think if you hadn't started Girl your enthusiasm for skating may have died down?
I always ask myself that same question. I think life would have been a lot different. It was the best decision because I have had the freedom to enjoy skateboarding when I wanted to. It's kind of been on my terms. We try to keep structure. There have been times where I'll be burnt and there have also been times where I'm super motivated, productive, making my own decisions. I'm really glad Rick talked me into it.
You said at the beginning of Harsh Euro Barge, "I want to skate a spot, not get a trick and still have fun." Was filming for Pretty Sweet in keeping with this?
When it started being filmed it started as the Chocolate video, we just came off Fully Flared and I was super burnt on filming. I couldn't stand it. It was cool because it was starting out as a Chocolate video. It evolved into a Girl and Chocolate video. In the process I tried to go out and skate with the guys couple of times and I got to the point where I was skating The Berrics a lot in the beginning before it got really serious with all the filming in there. It was before [Brandon] Biebel's park. I was skating our park and The Berrics with the bowled corner. It was before Battle at the Berrics actually. That's all I wanted to do. I tried to go out with the guys on their filming missions and I wouldn't skate because either we got kicked out or this or that.
That was one thing I didn't like about going to try to film. Maybe it was lack of motivation or hunger, I'm not sure. Long story short, I planned on not having any footage in Pretty Sweet, I was over it. I was like "I'm not going to have one clip, I'm not going to try" and then I decided to go on trips just to have fun. There was this moment where I thought, "this video is going to be good" and I wanted to be in the video with them at least. I started trying to think about that. I got sick for a while so I couldn't go and skate for 5 or 6 months. We went to China and it's obviously an amazing place for skating, I went there just to go. Like you said: go somewhere, not get a trick and still have fun. That's what my goal was. So I went and I accidentally got a trick on film just because it was something I wanted to try. I was just skating before they were filming.
That’s when things picked up again?
When I got that trick I thought I should try to get some more tricks, maybe get 3 tricks and I'll be in someone's part.
Is it still possible for videos to happen organically? At this level, hype has to be a distraction.
I don't know if there's too much hype. Skateboarding is naturally video-orientated. When I grew up skating we didn’t have too many videos but we always looked forward to the ones that came out. You could look at magazines as much as you wanted but before you went skating you had your couple video parts that you would watch 20 times before you walked out the door. I'm sure there are a lot that do happen organically. It all depends on what you want from it. It's harder when there's a lot more people on the team. One guy could organically have a full part in six months but another guy is hurt or is not in that right mode where everything is clicking. I think it's totally possible but at the same time you have to understand going to spots and getting kicked out, being on point with skating: having a trick ready to get first or third try, be willing to drive three hours to one spot to hopefully get it, or spend all night with the generators until six in the morning.
Favorite Girl films?
I'm going to say Yeah Right! comes to mind, Mouse obviously. I like Paco. I like them all for different reasons. I like Goldfish because it was our first video. We all just had fun with it and I wasn't stressing on learning tricks and I think that's when I realized it wasn't about being better than the last one. It's just how you’re skating at that place in your life, whatever time it is. I liked all the little skits that we did. They were fun. Paco was fun, I didn't have much in it but I liked the vibe of it. I think that's one of our true vibes. Yeah Right! was good because Brian got on, there was [Rick] McCrank and Biebel. We just went on the tour and places were playing that video and I hadn't seen it in a while, I just thought, "this is a good video." We were doing signings and I kept picking my head up and getting lost in it.
I remember reading that you were annoyed at Rick for missing a line you did at Wallenberg while filming for Goldfish. Do you remember what it was?
I think we re-filmed it. I was probably annoyed but didn't take it past that day. I think it was a line that ended with a nollie heelflip over the last brick ledge or whatever. Back then we were filming each other, Eric was filming one person, it was a free for all. We'd always lose footage and shit like that. It was something to do with the nollie heel.
Your favourite video part of your own is in Questionable for a variety of reasons, some of which are Embarcadero-related. What was the best line you saw there?
That's a hard question. I just think about that period of time: skating with everyone and learning all the exact same tricks on flat, the 3 stair, then down the big 3, then down the 7, then you learn them up the ledges and stuff like that. Watching Henry Sanchez progress and take skateboarding to the next level. That was insane to watch. I think that everyone who saw him back then and even later would agree.
You mentioned Brian doing graphics earlier. How do you envisage the Girl graphics changing going forwards?
I think it's just a natural evolution. We started off with simple graphics for our very first boards and we do stick to that here and there. Obviously Andy Jenkins and his art have been a really big part of Girl. There are always different designers that have done the graphics and the skaters come up with some of the ideas too. It's sort of a mish mash of different ideas. I don't think there's any plan on the future of the graphics. Maybe there is some conscious decision going on but I don’t think there is. Rick will be able to speak more on that.
Do you remember the yellow "Mike Carroll poses as In-N-Out employee in Mouse" ad?
Since we're doing the 20 years stuff, I just actually saw that.
It’s a classic.
I didn't remember it being an ad but I saw that image last week when we were going through photos and stuff. I think every ad we do probably to this day — unless we're going with a certain theme — is last minute: "put images here or there. What have we got? Just put that there." Nothing is ever really too thought out. I’m sure it wasn't even a Mouse ad. It could have been two years after Mouse. That's the way we do it, we don’t even know what's going on sometimes. Sometimes it's just random. We've had super generic catalogue photos, we did those re-issues of Rick Howard fishing but did it with Brandon and Cory then also Malto after the original one with Eric. All those are funny ideas.
You guys were on the road recently for the Pretty Sweet US Tour. How long were you traveling for?
Almost five weeks. It was fun. Speaking for myself, I didn't skate the demos that much because I didn't skate that much before the trip so I don't know how burnt the guys that were skating every day were. It wasn't until I had a week left that I was like, "oh shit, we're almost home." We weren't expecting the turnouts to be as big as they were. That was cool, to see skateboarding and kids that are skating. Skateboarding feels good and alive out there. There were good vibes.
How have the tours changed?
I don't feel like they've changed much. It's still the same: you do the signings, the demos. We're not some super crazy rich corporation that can do luxurious trips. We're still in the fifteen passenger vans, driving across the country and trying to skate street. Maybe in the beginning in the first couple of years when we were young instead of stopping and skating street, we would stop at outlet stores and try to buy clothes and some dumb shit. Not dumb, but just being unnecessary. Now I don't think we do that as much. Instead of stopping to buy at an outlet store we stop at a lake or do a jump in the river. That's the only thing that's changed. We stop and appreciate some nature or skate some street or whatever.
Any strange stories from signings?
Not that weird. Whatever is imaginable has probably happened. This doesn't answer your question but I think it's funny being older and watching the younger guys getting attention. It's pretty awesome. Malto and guys like that get attention from all the girls, they can't wait to see him, they're all nervous like he's from some boy band or something [laughs]. The tours were smaller when we started Girl and skating was smaller. I don't think much has changed except that skating has gotten a little bigger.
In what ways are you thinking abut the next 20 years?
We made it 20 years so it would be awesome to see it go another 20. Keep on truckin', doing what we love, hopefully people like what we do, hopefully we like what we do and keep having fun with it. It's an interesting thought. I never thought we would have made 20 years. In the beginning I would never imagine being 20 years old let alone have a company that's 20 years old. Skateboarding changes every year. Hopefully we've been able to provide some awesome experiences.
Special thanks - Aaron Meza, Sam Smyth and Chops.
Lakai - EMB Carroll promo (1990-1991)
Compiled by Lakai in 2007, this shows Carroll on home territory - SF's Justin Herman Plaza AKA 'EMB' long before it became a global skate mecca and when he was still skating for H-Street. Long lines and technical ledge combos were at the forefront of progressive skateboarding at the time and he had both dialled. If 1:13 doesn't make you wish for the return of the one footed backside 180 then I don't know what will! Solid Souls of Mischief/Hieroglyphics vibes seal the deal. Check this link for some EMB history and gnarly stories from the locals.
Plan B - Questionable (1992)
Carroll's breakthrough part throws in switch tricks with a solidness way ahead of the times, a couple of vert lines and a whole raft of EMB cameos - calling it dope doesn't do it justice. Meanwhile, sandwiched between the Beastie Boys, Del tha Funkee Homosapien brings the Hieroglyphics hype!
Plan B - Virtual Reality (1993)
Despite the apparently less than enjoyable filming circumstances behind Plan B's Virtual Reality (in the words of Jacob Rosenberg, 'it definitely broke a few of the rider's spirits'), Mike still comes through with the goods in the form of a solid part with a handrail ender which can be held up as the epitome of style.
FTC - Finally (1993)
While things were reaching a close for Mike over at Plan B, his first section for San Francisco-based shop FTC shows the embryonic stages of a fruitful and still-running relationship. More EMB destruction is complemented by a city-wide assault on street and schoolyard spots which would become heavily rinsed in videos throughout the 90s.
Girl - Goldfish (1994)
1994 was the year that the small wheels/pressure flip trend started to die out and more emphasis began to be placed on style and flow, a change undoubtedly sped up by Girl Skateboards' first offering Goldfish. Started by Carroll, Rick Howard, Megan Baltimore and Spike Jonze, the company was well placed for new developments due to a focus on timeless street steezing - Carroll's section demonstrates this perfectly, with flowing lines highlighting his powerful style.
Girl - Mouse (1996)
Cheech and Chong, Chas n Dave, Scorsese and De Niro, Barry and Paul Chuckle - Mike Carroll and Rick Howard are amongst the great duos of our time, and this part in the second Girl video cemented that reputation. Short and sweet, it still offers plenty of time to showcase their effortless styles to the strains of the strangely foreboding funk of War's 'Slipping into Darkness'.
FTC - Penal Code (1996)
Like I said, some cheese and wine shit! These sections are basically a ledge technician's manual, but this isn't to say that other terrain is ignored; the back smith at Hubba is shown devoid of fanfare, this is just matter of fact ripping.
Chocolate - The Chocolate Tour (1999)
Absolute destruction, with the Andre Nickatina soundtrack making this a perfect showcase of two of the Bay Area's finest exports. Handrails and stairs were the flavour of the day and Carroll was as usual on top of the game - check the technique on the nollie flip ender.
Transworld - Modus Operandi (2000)
A Transworld section is a fairly solid indicator of a skateboarder's respect within the scene, so it was no surprise to see Mike coming through with a section in 2000's Modus Operandi. His monologue regarding the mental torture of trying a trick with thoughts of injuries flicking through the brain like a cheap horror flick placed him firmly as a skater's skater, subject to the same pressures the rest of us deal with whilst trying to kickflip down the local car park three set. The skating, with its barrage of hammers, should belie this; but rather it builds the hype regardless of the viewer's ability, as Carroll doing a tre flip on flat is just as memorable as him doing the same down an awkwardly angled double set.
Girl - Yeah Right! (2003)
Spike Jonze's running joke throughout Yeah Right! shows unfeasible tricks going down at various points, all clearly done with the aid of carefully placed and green-screened ramps. The level of actual skating going down wasn't too far removed from the special FX though, and of course Carroll comes correct - one of the best frontside big spins in the game, technical handrail tricks and a lesson in textbook varial flips all set to a banging Scarface track.
Antihero/Girl - Beauty and the Beast
Basically because I can - one of the best tour line ups ever, including Mike Carroll, seemed as good a way as any to finish. Check the japan over the hip at 13:20, powerful!
Guangzhou back smith
Handrail shapes in the Chinese city of Guangzhou. Photo: Ben Colen.
Switch Big Spin Manual Revert, London
The well used but now sadly gone SOAS gap to manny spot gets a first try banger from MC during the 'Oi meets Girl' UK tour from 2004. Photo: Leo Sharp.
Backside Lipslide, Guangzhou
Locking in for a lengthy back lip journey in Guangzhou. Photo: Ben Colen.
Salad Grind, Pizzey
Preparing for re-entry on a tweaked salad grind. Photo: Ben Colen.
...and we out! Photo: Ben Colen.